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Dhaka Tribune

Government flouts rules to favour software vendor

Update : 21 Apr 2015, 09:31 PM

In a clear violation of public procurement rules, the government has recently bought software from a firm cancelling an open tender and depriving four other renowned developers.

Sources said the optical character recognition (OCR) software could have cost the government less had it been procured through open tendering.

In fact, the Access to Information (A2I) project under the Prime Minister’s Office already has fully working OCR software. It would have cost the ICT Division nearly 30 times less had they used that instead of asking a software firm to develop a new one.

OCR is a special software that allows anyone to convert scanned PDF and images into editable Word, Text and Excel outputs.

According to documents accessed by Dhaka Tribune, earlier this year, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Division purchased three software packages – one for OCR and the others for text-to-speech conversion – at a cost of Tk6.34 crore from a company named Team Engine.

Before that, without citing any reason, the ICT Division defied a Finance Ministry directive by cancelling an open tender in which four renowned software firms – who have a reputation for developing similar computer programmes – took part.

Interestingly, Team Engine, the company that eventually supplied the software, never took part in that tender.

The tender story

According to documents, the government on December 2 last year published a tender notice for the “Bangla Corpus, Bangla OCR and Text-to-Speech Software Procurement” programme at a cost of Tk8.60 crore.

Before that, on August 6, 2014, the ICT Division invited expressions of interest (EOI) and got a response from four interested companies – Grameen Solutions, Bangla Phone Ltd, System Resources Ltd and IBCX Primax Software (BD) Ltd. Team Engine did not submit any EOI at that time either.

In the meantime, the Finance Ministry revised the programme cost of Tk6.34 crore. The ministry also said that open tender must be floated for purchasing the software.

When contacted, Shyam Sunder Sikder, secretary of the ICT Division, claimed there were no irregularities in awarding the contract, and that they have the authority to cancel the open tender.

“We reserve the right to cancel any tender at any time and go for a single source. This is permitted by the law,” he told the Dhaka Tribune recently.

But referring to the public procurement rules, a senior official said a single source can only be allowed if there are no other interested companies.

Asked why the tender was cancelled, the secretary said: “I was not here when the process began. So I cannot comment on the process.”

Documents prepared by the ICT Division claim that Team Engine is the only company in Bangladesh that can serve these softwares.

When asked how Team Engine got the job when there were four other interested companies, the secretary said: “There are other authorities above me. So all decisions do not come from my table.”

When contacted, Rana Saha, company secretary of Grameen Solutions, told the Dhaka Tribune: “We had information that there were mechanisms behind the tender. So, we decided not to go for a legal fight after the tender was cancelled.”

A2I’s OCR software

In documents, the ICT Division also claimed the OCR software developed by Team Engine was the 36th in the world, meaning that it was the first of its kind from Bangladesh.

But A2I’s OCR – developed at a cost of only Tk23 lakh – came into being long before the one developed by Team Engine is now being used in full swing in 64 districts by 17 ministries and divisions, said Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor of A2I.

“Now the government is planning to install A2I’s OCR software in 20,000 government offices in the next two years,” Anir said.

When asked, ICT Secretary Shyam Sunder Sikder said he had no idea that A2I had already developed an OCR software.

But A2I officials said the secretary must be lying because officials from his division were involved with the A21 project.

“How can the secretary say he has no idea about A2I’s OCR? The prime minister herself inaugurated our OCR three months ago,” a senior official, seeking anonymity, of the A2I project under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) told the Dhaka Tribune.

Very recently, PM Sheikh Hasina, who is also in charge now of the ICT Division, inaugurated the OCR software developed by Team Engine.

When contacted, Team Engine’s Managing Director and CEO Samira Zuberi Himika told the Dhaka Tribune: “We have nothing to do with the process. So I cannot say anything about whether the process [of awarding the contract] was correct or not.”

She also said: “Team Engine is the first company in the country to develop OCR software. Please, do not try to create any confusion about that. Finance Minister AMA Muhith and State Minister for ICT Junaid Ahmed Palak attended the launching ceremony of our software as the chief and special guests.”

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